The police were frank and open, but under their crisply creased uniforms and news release verbiage, they also were frustrated. Four months after a triple shooting on Shepherd Street NW, four months after District police announced a "Plan for Eliminating Drug Dealing and Violent Crime" in that neighborhood, a 12-year-old girl was shot in the gut as she sat on her porch, one block from the site of that triple shooting.
Now, with 150 worried homeowners before them in a brand-new police command center one block from where that triple shooting took place, the police brass struggled to provide the right mix of assurances that they were on the ball and admissions that there is only so much they can do.
"When a child is injured, everybody ratchets up their level of intensity," said Cmdr. Hilton Burton, who runs the department's 4th Police District, which includes the Petworth area. He listed the moves made since the neighborhood was declared a hot zone: more officers, more foot patrols, roadblocks, 143 arrests, 1,904 tickets.
All of which, the police conceded, has only displaced the drug market from one block to the next. Because, Burton said, for every thug the police take off the streets, dealers recruit another kid into their ranks, and for every bad guy who gets locked up, at least one gets out of jail, "and we have a very high recidivism rate in this city."
The audience nodded, and everyone was very civil, because we all know the severe limitations the police face. "We just don't have enough places to put all the people we lock up for drugs," Chief Charles Ramsey said, and who could fault him for that?
But while there is solace in learning that the police are trying, there is also a simmering anger in this fast-changing part of the city. Petworth is the red-hot core of the urban boom. Most mornings, five or six contractors' trucks dot nearly every block, as new buyers renovate old rowhouses.
Last week's meeting attracted a crowd that was almost equal parts Anglo, Latino and black -- all united in defense of their property values. There's a new vibe at some community meetings in parts of Washington now -- race and class do not necessarily or instantly divide anymore. Instead, taxpayers of all stripes demand that the city cough up the services that those sky-high taxes supposedly pay for.
So when a Hispanic man who has lived at Ninth and Allison streets for a year complained that the police "have a very negative attitude" and only grudgingly respond to reports of gunfire on the corner, nearly everyone in the room cheered him on. And when a white man new to the neighborhood begged the police to tell citizens how they can help, he too won applause. And when a black woman who has lived in Petworth for most of her life told about the police ignoring her when she reported threats made by neighborhood thugs, the crowd united in demanding an answer.
"Poor service is not acceptable -- period," Ramsey said.
Sorry, not enough. Not when everyone in the room knows where the dealers live, yet the police never seem to visit those houses. Not when gunfire erupts almost every night, yet when the police come through, they rarely get out of their cars. Not when one woman I spoke to told of calling police to report at least 10 shots fired on the night before the 12-year-old was hit. No one showed up. The woman called again, and when police came, they did not knock on the door of the home of the bad guys, "but they did show up at my door, so now all the thugs know exactly who called the police. And all the cops said was, 'Did you call?' And then they drove around and left. So if I die, I just want people to know that's how it happened."
I spoke to four residents of the block where the thugs hang out -- people who have lived there for decades and people who just bought there, encouraged by the sense of security that having a police station down the street should provide -- and each told me enough about the bad guys to fill a dossier.
"We give the cops the car tag numbers, the house, the names," one woman said. "What else do they need?"
Burton could only repeat: "We know the trouble houses. Our goal is to close down the drug market. Arrest is our best tool for that."
Sorry, not enough, said Adrian Fenty, Ward 4's omnipresent member of the D.C. Council. "I mean, this is half a block from a police station. It's unbelievable. You would think at some point the police would be embarrassed."